The AP No. 3-ranked Florida Gators men's basketball team will welcome the long-awaited eligibility of one of their most prized recruits in freshman forward Chris Walker, whom the NCAA has cleared to play.
ESPN insider Jeff Goodman was first to report the news on Wednesday, Jan. 29. Walker will be available to play in his first game since arriving in Gainesville when the Gators tangle with SEC rival Missouri next Tuesday, Feb. 4, at home:
Florida freshman Chris Walker has been cleared by the NCAA, sources told ESPN. Eligible to play Tuesday.— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanESPN) January 29, 2014
The AP's Mark Long confirmed this exciting development for Gator Nation:
Gators confirm that F Chris Walker has been cleared and will play Feb. 4 vs Mizzou— Mark Long (@APMarkLong) January 29, 2014
NCAA.org released a statement regarding the matter, with NCAA vice president of academic and membership affairs Kevin Lennon sharing his thoughts:
The NCAA membership has expressed continued concern about how third-party influence, improper agent involvement and the role of nonscholastic basketball impact student-athletes and prospects. Out of concern for student-athletes’ wellbeing, our members have created rules that limit the involvement of these individuals. The 12 games Mr. Walker was required to sit out reflect the significance of these violations.
The NCAA determined that Walker received "free cell phones and service, airfare, lodging, meals and apparel" while he was a prospect.
Two agents and five total people gave him preferential treatment, and Walker is required to pay back the $270 he received from the agents and do 80 hours of community service. Florida began working with the NCAA on Jan. 21 to reinstate Walker.
Head coach Billy Donovan provided his perspective, per GatorZone.com's Twitter account:
Donovan: “We’re glad there’s a resolution for everyone involved, especially for Chris.” (1/2)— Gator M-Basketball (@GatorZoneMBK) January 29, 2014
Donovan: “We appreciate everyone’s participation in this process and are ready to move forward.” (2/2)— Gator M-Basketball (@GatorZoneMBK) January 29, 2014
According to 247Sports.com's composite rankings, Walker—the in-state Holmes County High School (Bonifay, Fla.) product—was the No. 2 power forward and seventh-ranked prospect overall in the Class of 2013.
How does Chris Walker's addition impact the Gators?
Academic eligibility issues have also delayed the talented Walker from taking the hardwood as of yet. Goodman reported on Dec. 14, 2013 that Walker had completed the requirements to enroll at the university in the spring by completing three online courses. He began practicing with the team immediately thereafter.
Even without Walker, Florida has managed a 17-2 record in the 2013-14 season to date, including a perfect 6-0 mark in the conference.
CBSSports.com's Jeff Borzello believes the potential Final Four contenders will be that much stronger with the addition of Walker:
Florida was one of the Final Four favorites already -- addition of Chris Walker makes them even stronger: http://t.co/DAGXNO4A7X— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) January 29, 2014
There's a real possibility that Walker could bring a dynamic new dimension to what is already a thriving Florida squad. It also helps that the youngster has gotten at least some practice reps in with his teammates.
Incredible athleticism and jumping ability for his 6'10", 220-pound size are what stand out most about Walker's unique skill set.
Walker is also an exceptional ball-handler, is extremely fast and has even shown flashes of an outside jump shot. There is no question Walker can step in and contribute as an energy guy off the bench right away—assuming he's been staying in shape.
March Madness isn't too far away, but there is still time for Donovan to integrate Walker into the rotation however he sees fit. If he lives up to the hype, the freshman phenom has the potential to be an X-factor in the Gators' chances to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.